Suspended in webs of meaning

Available Light

September 15, 2000

Clifford Geertz opens his latest book with what he bills as a Bildungsroman . The protagonist is himself and the plot, though it runs all the way to the present, fills only eight pages. It leaves unexplained the most starkly visible of the changes that have taken place in Geertz's writing. His first book, The Religion of Java (1960), would be most at home among recent works whose authors seek to move away from the objectifying, third-person discourse of traditional ethnographies, instead composing works they describe as "dialogical" or "multivocal". He speaks in the voice of a distanced interpreter of culture, but he also speaks (via quotations from his field notes) as a researcher in face-to-face interaction with the practitioners of that culture. His Javanese interlocutors sometimes speak in their voices as performers of traditional genres of discourse, but they also speak with the voices of individuals engaged in conversation with a field worker, not only answering his questions but also venturing commentaries.

By 1973, when Geertz published The Interpretation of Cultures (his most cited book), he was practising "thick description", which brought with it a thinning of the voices of ethnic "others". In the final chapter of this book, his celebrated account of the Balinese cockfight, the natives are limited to a few one-liners. By way of translation they say, for example, "We are all cock crazy!" In the one example of a native text, they respond to the arrival of the local authorities by shouting " pulisi! pulisi! " There are plenty of quotations in other chapters, but they come mostly from the works of anthropologists, philosophers and other academics, together with an occasional literary figure. The same pattern of quotation is followed in the volume under review here, except that the native voices have reached the vanishing point.

If the author in question were someone other than Geertz, we might see the fading of native voices as a mere reflection of the progress of his professionalisation, which has moved him away from the discourse of the field and deeper into that of academia. But his particular case presents us with something of a paradox. Looking back over his career, he describes himself as "someone who saw human beings, quoting myself paraphrasing Max Weber, 'suspended in webs of meaning they themselves have spun'". For the study of these webs he took his model from philosophical hermeneutics, launching the project he and his followers have been calling "interpretive anthropology" ever since. The odd thing about the project is that the "texts" under interpretation are metaphorical ones, embracing any cultural phenomenon whose meaning an anthropologist may choose to explicate. Texts in the literal sense - the records of what the ethnic others said to one another, or what they and the fieldworker said to one another - need play no role in the published discourse of this kind of anthropology. Such texts are undeniably essential for the construction of interpretive works, as they were in the case of The Religion of Java, but they need not be made available for reinterpretation.

Geertz repeatedly mentions the "moral asymmetries" that separate ethnic others from fieldworkers, but he never explores this problem in terms of the asymmetry of discourse that results from his paradigm, which casts others as producers of "texts" and anthropologists as interpreters of these "texts". He mentions, with suspicion, the existence of a "dialogical approach", and he includes Bakhtin in a list of "enormous engines of postmodern self-doubt", but he does let one dialogue between himself and an ethnic other slip into his new book. Ironically, it takes place not in face-to-face conversation but in an exchange of notes, sent back and forth between himself and a Javanese who borrowed his typewriter. He tells the story of these notes wonderfully, except for one thing: instead of quoting what was said, he glosses over it with indirect discourse. But there is one fully quoted dialogue in the book, and it happens to be in this same chapter. It is an exchange between Charlie Brown and Lucy, taken from the "Peanuts" cartoon strip.

When Geertz writes of "frames of meaning", he does so without mentioning the embodiment of meaning in connected linguistic utterances. In speaking of "the perception of meaning, in the form of interpretable signs", he disposes of spoken signs by dropping "sounds" into a list that includes images, feelings, artefacts and gestures. He diverts attention from "language games" by melding them with "communities of discourse, intersubjective systems of reference, ways of world-making". In passing, he variously describes linguistics as one of the four major sub-fields of anthropology, as having undergone the "Chomskyan revolution", as including practitioners who are "psychologically oriented", and as having drifted away from its alliance with the other major sub-fields. "Discourse theory" and "speech-act analysis" are inserted without comment into a list of "recent developments" that includes "the interpretation of cultures" and "the hermeneutics of everyday life".

This list is as close as Geertz comes to suggesting a possible relationship between "the interpretation of cultures" and the study of language in its social and cultural contexts. He completely ignores the ongoing line of research called "ethnography of speaking" or "sociolinguistics", which arose at the same time as interpretive anthropology. Dell Hymes, the principal instigator of such research, is a contemporary of Geertz, but both have a habit of not citing the other.

Under the heading "Culture war", Geertz reviews the debate between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins over the meaning of the events that led up to the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii. Sahlins's position is that the Hawaiians interpreted Cook's arrival as the return of Lono, a god, whereas Obeyesekere argues that this story is a product of the misunderstandings and imaginations of Englishmen and Christian Hawaiians. Geertz represents Sahlins, a structuralist, as the more rational of the two, while portraying Obeyesekere, a psychological anthropologist, as emotional and erratic, putting moral and political issues (including his own third-world identity) ahead of empirical ones. Remarkably, he suppresses Obeyesekere's best argument, which happens to be a brilliant piece of textual interpretation. According to this argument, the identification of Cook as a god required that a traditional Hawaiian trope, whereby chiefly persons were compared with gods, be interpreted literally by Englishmen and Christian Hawaiians.

Geertz introduces his discussion of Sahlins and Obeyesekere by calling them "two of the senior and most combat-ready figures in the field", as if they were professional equals, though it might be closer to the truth to characterise them as a first-world Goliath and a third-world David. More concretely, one could point out that Sahlins is senior to Obeyesekere, that his doctorate (like Geertz's) carries an Ivy League brand name rather than a second-rung state one, and that he has spent his career in anthropology departments whose power and prestige dwarf that of Obeyesekere's department. Towards the end of the discussion, Geertz coyly confesses (between parentheses) that he finds Sahlins "markedly the more persuasive". Professionally speaking, Sahlins also happens to be Geertz's age mate (though not his classmate); they received their doctorates in the same year. Fieldwork, it would seem, is not the only site of asymmetries.

Dennis Tedlock is professor of English and research professor of anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo, United States.

Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics

Author - Clifford Geertz
ISBN - 0 691 04974 2
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 264

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs